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Congressional incumbents on shaky ground in '08

Activists target lawmakers in Congress who cooperated with the opposition party.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2008

On the stump: Chris Peden, the Republican opponent of Ron Paul in the 14th Congressional District, spoke in Katy, Texas, days before the state's primary on March 4.

Mark Thomson

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It's shaping up to be a perilous election year for members of Congress, even in primary season when the iron law of incumbency typically prevails.

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The defeat of two longtime incumbents in Maryland primaries last month stunned official Washington. It's a rare event for members of Congress to lose, but the new element in these races is the role of activist groups on the right and left in defeating incumbents deemed too conciliatory to the other side.

Meanwhile, the 2008 campaign is producing unusually high numbers of credible primary challengers. Reps. Ron Paul (R) of Texas and Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio curtailed their presidential campaigns to shore up support in Tuesday primary races – and the congressional primary season, unlike the presidential primary period, is just beginning.

"We've already seen as many incumbents knocked off in primary elections so far this year as were defeated in all of 2006," says David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. "It's a 'change' election, so primary challengers have more leeway to establish viability through fundraising and through messaging."

In recent history, members of Congress have rarely faced credible primary opponents. Since 1980, the number of US House members defeated in a primary election can be counted on one hand, except when an incumbent faces an incumbent, as often happens after a decennial census and redistricting.

But the number of incumbents with viable primary challengers is rising: In the first 12 months of the 2008 election cycle, 21 House members – nine Democrats and 12 Republicans – face challengers who have raised at least $50,000. That's double the levels of the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, according to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) in Washington.

"Many of these are not just individual challenges to individual incumbents, they are challenges supported by organizations that are engaged in battles for the soul of their respective parties," says Michael Malbin, CFI executive director. "While the absolute numbers are small, the percentage increase is significant because it's part of a larger story."

Nine-term Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) and eight-term Rep. Albert Wynn (D) were both supported by their respective party leaders – the national party campaign organizations don't take sides in primaries – but alienated key activist groups.

Mr. Gilchrest, one of two House Republicans who voted for a timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq, fell afoul of the Club for Growth, an antitax group, over his votes on taxes, spending, and regulation.

"He was a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal, and it caught up with him," says former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, who is president of the Club for Growth. His organization spent $700,000 on advocacy ads in the race and bundled an additional $430,000 from the group's members for challenger Andrew Harris, a conservative Maryland state senator.